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‘Let us help you with testing,’ say vet labs

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By Josh Loeb

The director of a veterinary laboratory has had no take up from the government to his offers to test thousands of samples from patients suspected of having Covid-19.

Paul Burr, director of Biobest, part of VetPartners, said his Edinburgh-based diagnostics lab could perform in the region of 2000 PCR tests a week to determine whether individuals were infected with the virus, or 2000 antibody tests to detect whether they had antibodies.

He has been offering this service to both Whitehall and the Scottish government ‘for weeks’, but so far the offer has not been taken up.

‘We are based right next to the Moredun Research Institute, and we’re collaborating with them. But I’m afraid we’ve had no positive response so far,’ Burr said.

He added: ‘We knew early on that because of our infectious disease diagnostics skills we have existing PCR-based and antibody assays that are directly transferable to this crisis, if they [the government and NHS] want to use us.

‘We’ve got both the facility and the equipment to run PCR testing and antibody testing, and the ability to do so. There is some risk here, you could say, from the human samples from patients, and we also have the facilities to manage that safely according to current guidelines. Once we were happy with that, we offered that to the government in every way I know.’

Mass testing is regarded as a cornerstone of both healthcare resilience and any loosening of the lockdown. One type of test – an antigen test – determines whether someone is currently infected, while another tests for the presence of antibodies, indicating past infection. The former could free up those NHS staff who are uninfected but self isolating as a precaution to return to work. The antibody test could enable a loosening of the lockdown, since people who have developed antibodies, and presumably have acquired a degree of immunity, could resume their normal lifestyles.

Despite this, some vet labs that say they could perform the required tests immediately are now furloughing staff who could be usefully employed in Covid-19 testing. They are also struggling to obtain the requisite reagents.

As Burr explained: ‘We believe supplies of the reagents needed for the Covid-19 tests are being sequestered by the government and it may be hard to get hold of these reagents unless you are testing for the NHS or the government.

‘We’re keeping the service going here for animal health and welfare essential testing as required. But obviously because of the shutdown, samples have dropped off and we are now furloughing some staff.’

Veterinary diagnostic facilities – as well as private medical and dental laboratories – could help the government achieve its target of providing 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of this month.

But many vets are baffled as to why the government has been so slow in taking up offers to carry out Covid-19 tests.

Martin Squires, a vet from Cumbria, has written to his constituency MP Neil Hudson, an equine vet turned Conservative politician, to ask whether the government had put together a list of all UK human and animal testing facilities that could be mobilised as part of a mass testing programme.

And, in a question for a government science adviser at a virtual briefing for members of the House of Lords this week, Lord Trees, a crossbench peer and Vet Record’s chief veterinary adviser, asked: ‘Why has it taken so long for Public Health England to accept help with testing from industry and academia, such as in my own field of veterinary science?’

Vet laboratories are in an excellent position to offer their expertise

The BVA is also keen for the veterinary profession to do all it can to control the Covid-19 outbreak. This week its senior vice president Simon Doherty said vet laboratories stood ‘in an excellent position to offer their expertise and laboratory set-up to increase the country’s Covid-19 testing capacity’, subject to achieving the relevant accreditation.

Earlier this month, Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute announced that it would be helping carry out up to 1000 Covid-19 tests daily.

Vet Record contacted Public Health England, Defra and Public Health Scotland for a comment but no response had been received by the time of going to press. ●

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